Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Obsequere Imperio, Part II

We return to the sad tale of Gaius Silius and his doomed affair with Messalina, the emperor Claudius' wife.

Now that Juvenal has set the scene, he addresses Silius directly in order to make his pathetic dilemma all the more vivid for his readers/listeners. The starkness with which Silius' "choice" is delineated gives the concluding passage of the episode considerable force, as does Juvenal's typically clever choice of words:

haec tu secreta et paucis commissa putabas?
non nisi legitime volt nubere. quid placeat dic.
ni parere velis, pereundum erit ante lucernas;
si scelus admittas, dabitur mora parvula, dum res
nota urbi et populo contingat principis aurem.
dedecus ille domus sciet ultimus. interea tu
obsequere imperio, si tanti vita dierum
paucorum. quidquid levius meliusque putaris,
praebenda est gladio pulchra haec et candida cervix.

"Did you really think that this was all secret, known to only a few? She only wants to marry you in the proper way. Tell us what you intend. If you aren't willing to obey, you will have to die before nightfall; if you admit the crime, a smidgen of delay will be allowed, until something which the city and the people know reaches the emperor's ear. He will be the last to know of the disgrace to his house. As for you, meanwhile, fall in with authority, if a few more days of life matters so much to you. Whatever you consider a gentler or better fate, that pretty white neck will have to be put before the sword."

(Juvenal, Satire X, 337-345)

And we see:

Line 337: An apostrophe of sorts, the intention of which is perhaps to bring Silius "closer" to the reader/listener (in a sense Juvenal is addressing both, since the whole satire takes the form of a suasoria, an encouragement to pray only for unequivocal benefits rather than superficial ones). The tone of sarcasm and derision is unmistakable, underlined by the emphatic positioning of "haec" and "putabas?", illustrating Silius' foolish naivety.
338: "quid placeat dic" is another bucolic diaeresis (a Juvenal specialty), putting Silius' dilemma in the bluntest possible terms.
339: two significant terms in this line are "parere" and "pereundum". The idea of obeying Messalina's wishes shows exactly who wields the power in this situation, even though Silius is, of course, the man...so much for "love, honour and obey"! And once again, Juvenal has recourse to a gerundive form ("pereundum") to give emphasis to the idea of Silius being a victim of fate...and of his own good looks.
340: the diminutive form "parvula" is especially pathetic; his best choice only results in "a tiny" stay of execution, and even the generous-sounding "dabitur" is ironic, since it is hardly a gift worth giving.
341: the listener hears "nota" first, in the emphatic position, and the word carries force. The whole thing is known. Concealment is impossible, even if Claudius is somewhat late to hear of it.
342: there is some sympathy here for Claudius as well, if only parenthetically. He, too, is a victim of Messalina's scheming, although not as direct a victim of it as Silius.
343: the key line, including the phrase which has served as a title for this pair of posts. "obsequere imperio" comes directly before the caesura, drawing particular attention to it, and the subtlety of the wording is noticeable. We, of course, get our word obsequious from the verb obsequor, and the derivation is a good clue to the meaning here. Messalina makes her decision and Silius must follow (sequi), almost like a loyal dog. The final irony comes with "imperio"; Silius, as a consul-elect, has gained technical imperium by virtue of his political office, but he finds that the only real power/authority wielded in this situation is possessed by a lustful young woman (Messalina was still in her twenties at this stage). Perhaps this could be construed as a velied attack on the whole imperial system of government by Juvenal...but perhaps this is reading just a little too much into it.
344: "paucorum" is a grimly effective enjambment. Only a few days left to live, whatever Silius does.
345: a very well-crafted line to finish. In the emphatic initial position is yet another gerundive ("praebenda"), with the idea of obligation and inevitability stressed again; "gladio" concludes the opening phrase just in time for the caesura, and then we have some delicate alliteration and assonance of the "c" and "a" sounds, enhancing the description of Silius' delicate, pale, beautiful features...which have been the cause of his downfall. As a conclusion to a passage denouncing (or at least discouraging) prayers for good looks, it could hardly be bettered.

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